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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 14, March 21, 2009

In Defence of Professor Lotika Sarkar

Saturday 21 March 2009

Professor Lotika Sarkar is a widely-known pioneer in the fields of law, women’s studies and human rights. She taught criminal law and conflict of laws at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi and has been an active member of the Indian Law Institute. She was a member of the Government of India‘s Committee on the Status of Women in India and has been a founding member of several institutions—the Indian Association for Women Studies and the Centre for Women‘s Development Studies. At the age of 87, she has been divested of her right to life with dignity and this has left her friends deeply distressed. Many of them, who include eminent jurists, academics, journalists and activists like Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, Professor Upendra Baxi, Soli Sorabjee, Indira Jaising, B.G. Verghese, Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjea, Inder Malhotra, K.G. Kannabiran, Dr C. Rammanohar Reddy, and more than a dozen national groups and institutions like the Centre for Women‘s Development Studies, National Alliance for Women, Alternative Law Forum, All India Democratic Women‘s Association, National Federation of Indian Women, YWCA have issued the following statement in her defence.

We are distressed by some newspaper accounts concerning the unfortunate circum-stances in which Professor Lotika Sarkar has been placed (see The Times of India, 13/01/09, 6/2/09; 9/2/09; 14/2/09; 21/2/09, 22/2/09). Following the media accounts, we have verified the following facts:

1. Professor Lotika Sarkar and her husband Chanchal Sarkar, a distinguished journalist and eminent public citizen, built and lived in L-1/10, Hauz Khas, New Delhi.

2. Upon the sad demise of Chanchal Sarkar (10/10/2005), Lotika Sarkar continued to live in that house.

3. Mr Nirmal Dhoundial (serving IPS Officer of the Bihar Cadre) was a common friend of the Sarkars and he and his family claimed to have assumed duties of affectionate and fiduciary care by moving into her residence.

4. During the period (end 2005 to January 2009), while members of the Dhoundial family lived with Lotika Sarkar, it has been the common experience of her close friends and associates that, in all variety of ways, Professor Sarkar’s mobility was restricted as well access denied (at times in very intimidating modes) to her long-standing friends, including some relatives, who out of necessary regard for her security and well-being did the best in the circum-stance to enable her to live a dignified social existence.

5. Even so, many friends, associates, and relatives of Professor Sarkar found that the near ‘house-arrest’ conditions in which Professor Sarkar was cons-trained to live was not remotely in her best interests.

6. When she was threatened by another competing property claim, her family, concerned for her physical safety, moved her to her cousin, Malavika Karlekar’s house (TOI, 13/1/2009). Thereafter, with full consent, beginning with effect from 13/1/2009, Lotika Sarkar began staying with Malavika and Hiranmay Karlekar, and subsequently at Mumbai with Mithu Alur (15/1/2009 to 1/2/2009), both of them being blood relations, and in their own right eminent public citizens (also see TOI, 6/2/2009).

7. Instead of cooperating with the best interest arrangements, her non-kin custodians occupying her property now assert that her house stood transferred to them via a “gift deed” . We appreciate Mr Dhoundhial’s recent press statement (TOI, 14/2/09) that he will be happy to return the property her but are unable to understand the further demand that Lotika Sarkar stay for ten days with them for this to happen!

As longstanding friends of Lotika Sarkar, we had expected that the Dhoundial family, who also publicly affirm their friendship for her, would have shared and respected her right to live with dignity in what remains to her at the age of 87 years. The signatories to this statement would have appreciated an equal solicitude by the Dhoundial family (Mr Nirmal Dhoundial is a senior public official, and his son employed with the NDTV) respecting opportunities for dignified life for Lotika Sarkar as she has always conceived this as living, with free and full unhindered access to a large circle of her former students, colleagues, and human rights and women’s rights movement activists. This is how Lotika defined the social meaning of the human right to live with partici-pative dignity. To our dismay, they now seem to consider Lotika Sarkar merely as an estate, to which they now claim inheritance rights, even to the extent of a fully fledged habeas corpus petition before the Delhi Court (TOI, 20/2/2009). [Since the time of writing this public appeal, the habeas corpus petition has been dismissed by the courts. (TOI, 2/3/2009)]

We believe that Professor Lotika Sarkar has been a precious national resource in many a distinct way: as a law teacher for several generations, as paving ways for what now constitutes progressive elements in the Indian legal profession and also the Indian judiciary, and as an inestimable resource for social and human rights movements seriously regarding ‘women’s rights as human rights’.

We also remain aware that her poignant situation today illustrates a deeper malaise in con-temporary Indian society—the increasing vul-nerability and rightlessness of senior women citizens to live with dignity. As a group, we propose to fully engage further the agendum of adequate reforms in law and policy and we look forward in this task to sustained support from all fellow-citizens based on our collective funda-mental duty (Part IV-A, the Indian Constitution) to renounce practices derogatory of women, especially senior women citizens.

In the immediate context, we, the Friends of Lotika Sarkar, make an appeal that

• Lotika Sarkar’s property is transferred back to her and her assets handed over to her to allow her to live her life in peaceful serenity, which she so deserves.

• She is assured that she will not be harmed in any way.

• She is not harassed by any competing property claims.

• She return to her home safe and secure as an owner of the house with full rights of residence and life.

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